Forgetful Remembrance: Social Forgetting and Vernacular Historiography of a Rebellion in Ulster
by Guy Beiner (Oxford University Press, £35.00)
Troublesome memories, or memories of troubles? This fascinating book is about memory, and how the contemporary inevitably colours perceptions of the past.
In that context, pinning down memory is always aiming at a moving target. Don’t be put off by the book’s rather clunky subtitle – it says what is in the tin. As the author – a PhD graduate of UCD, but currently a professor of modern history in an Israeli university – succinctly puts it: it is ‘an exploration of how an episode in provincial history, in a peripheral corner of Europe, was paradoxically both forgotten and remembered locally’.
Beiner is in essence an analyst of memory, and of a different way of approaching history. Thus this study, while hanging on the peg of the history of a particular strain of memory of the 1798 rebellion, is much more than that.
It attempts to disentangle myth and history – ‘mythistory’ – an oftentimes lethal construct where truth for one is myth for another.
The book is as much about forgetting as remembering. It strikes a chord with this reviewer, who recognises in Beiner’s thesis much of what has gone on in the west Cork Protestant community since the traumas of the revolutionary period.
There, remembrance has become selective. Sometimes it hasn’t seemed to be there at all, not because the events are deliberately wiped from social memory, or because it was not politic for the community to remember them– but simply because it was no longer necessary, useful or significant to do so. Historians can fall into the trap that history is important to lay people. For most, it isn’t.
This book is a dense read, but rewarding. Beiner’s scholarship is exemplary. The referencing and bibliography is mind-bogglingly comprehensive. His writing is complex, but light in touch. This book needs to be taken at a sedate walk, not a canter.
What gives it shape for the general reader is its narrative style, in the sense that it is a journey through the Ulster mindset, in time and space, as it charts and analyses how and why the 1798 rebellion was remembered, forgotten, commemorated and decommemorated through the nineteenth and into the twenty-first century.
Its chapter headings give a flavour of what is under discussion here – such as silencing, unforgivingness, fictionalised memory, imagined reminiscence, partitioned memory, breaking silence, and troubled forgetting.
Beiner paints on a wide canvas; he interrogates the material world in particular to create a three-dimensional and vivid argument.
His ‘vernacular historiography’ is an exercise in detection, more akin to archaeology perhaps, as he excavates hidden oral histories, indirectness in unexplored and unexpected places, and sources such as film, poetry and plays.
Historians are often more conscious of what isn’t there, what isn’t said. Silences can sometimes speak volumes. Thus it is in this study.
Forgetting is not necessarily passive; it can be a conscious and active act not to remember. Thus, northern Presbyterians often actively ‘forget’ their forebears’ involvement in the United Irish rebellion of 1798; that simply does not fit the current loyalist narrative.
(In the same vein, the Irish Parliamentary Party’s contribution to independence was conveniently shunted into an historical siding and allowed to rust and crumble away.)
And a taciturn society, which northern Presbyterianism often shows itself to be, is one in which reticence can trump remembrance anyway – Seamus Heaney’s “whatever you say, say nothing” is ever-present on these pages.
We’re doing a lot of remembering on this island at the moment. Guy Beiner’s wonderful book puts that activity into a wider context and embeds it into a deeper conceptual framework – reminding us, perhaps, that while remembrance is important and useful to the psychological health of a community, its alter ego, forgetting, may be equally significant.